The Many Lives of the “Culture of Poverty”

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When Paul Ryan said,

…the tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and there so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with…”

another battle in the long racially coded ideological war over who is deserving and not deserving of being included as fully “American” was played out in Congress and in the media. It was fought on ground that is all to familiar, with weapons that have enjoyed only slight innovation over hundreds of years.

I’ve spent most of the last 35 of my now 52 years serving, organizing, campaigning, and lobbying for/with poor people. The first poor people I worked with who conservative policy makers and pundits referred to as carriers of this so-called “culture problem” were Native Hawaiian. The supposed laziness of Hawaiians was considered by many to be a factor in the high rate of Native Hawaiian poverty. Hawaiians are profiled as criminal, and, as a result, are wildly over-represented among those incarcerated in prisons.

But rarely throughout my life in Hawaii was forced assimilation, mass evictions, illegal annexation, political exclusion, racist rule by a Republican oligarchy, and a myriad other original sins of the founders of the State of Hawaii ever mentioned as if those acts were relevant to this so-called “culture problem.” It was as if the richest agricultural land and the rule of law in Hawaii had been given to former missionaries turned businessmen as a thank you gift for their role in causing the Native Hawaiian population to drop by more than 80% over so short a span of time that this near genocide is remembered as The Great Dying.

But, the conservative argument concerning just what to do about this and other calamitous consequences of racism and hubris goes something like this,

We are of course aghast at the horrific history of racism in this country, and mourn the suffering of generations who lived under racist rule, but now that rule is broken and we need to address the legacy of this history – a culture of poverty among its victims that has taken on a life of it’s own. This is not a product of racial background, but of racism. But to just kick the can down the road by offering government giveaways to assuage our guilt or worse, to engage in political pandering, rather than doing what is hard and breaking the chain of dependency this breeds, is not only irresponsible, it is selfish…

That’s my own quote. I’ve heard the mantra so many times, I could practically go to work as a conservative speech writer.

When you’ve lived in poverty and work side by side with poor people, you learn a thing or two about the so-called “culture of poverty.” I’ve worked with poor people of many races from Honolulu to Appalachia. And guess what? They all address their poverty in extraordinarily similar ways.

In Appalachia, I met teenagers growing up in former manufacturing communities and defunct coal camps. The industries had gone away, chasing cheaper labor markets in less regulated economies. The trap of inter-generational poverty had been set and these people were, appropriately, reacting as if that, indeed, was the reality. Many gave up aspirations of college. Their families couldn’t afford tuition, and what were they to do with their degrees if their families and friends lived in areas with no good jobs? And because there were no good jobs nearby, their parents traveled out of town to work. Traveling to work is expensive. It’s too expensive if those jobs don’t pay enough for childcare, gasoline and car payments. So, some people just didn’t work. They got by in other ways.

Turns out, when you trap people in poverty, regardless of their race, they behave as if they’re trapped. People are like that. When we’re on dry land, we walk. If the land floods, we swim.

But let’s be clear, we aren’t hearing much said about the “culture of poverty” of poor whites in rural Appalachia outside that region. Even when we do, they’re usually cast as victims, not perpetrators of their own suffering. Ever since the fall of Jim Crow and the establishment of the basis in law for Black people to have the right to ordinary worker protections, and equitable participation in government entitlements cut into the margin of profit of Black worker exploitation, just about the only people living in inter-generational poverty we hear about from policy makers are Black and busy creating “culture(s) of poverty.” Why?

Well, here’s one hypothesis. We pathologize black poverty like it’s some sort of disease to justify cutting black people out of society. We cut black people out and put them in prison or we label them undeserving “entitlement junkies” and then, at least in our minds and from our public treasury, cut them out. We criminalize and pathologize black people in order to reassure ourselves that the problem is not systemic; the system is healthy but beset by a disease we would do best to simply cut out.

Racist tropes like the “culture of poverty” are created and persist in our popular imagination for a reason. Whether it is the lazy Hawaiian or dysfunctional black culture, these tropes serve to assuage our collective guilt; to allow us to continue business as usual as though we’re not culpable for and integral to the problem of poverty in America, even if only by standing in line for disposable fashion at H&M while nothing is done to get to the root of the problem. In fact, by engaging in business as usual, we help to perpetuate poverty because poverty is the necessary byproduct of the way we do business in America. These tropes allow us to blinker ourselves to the very real problems of our society, and even to go so far as to decide those problems are people who should be cut out.

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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

2 replies on “The Many Lives of the “Culture of Poverty””

The “culture of poverty” deception is tricking people into going along with blaming the victims instead of placing due responsibility on the racists who are the most responsible and have the most power and resources to create and maintain “culture of poverty” — or alleviate it if they so choose (their actions say that they choose to not do so). It subtly suggests that the perpetrators are not to be held responsible. Attention is diverted away from the source of the problem. That’s like only treating the symptoms of an illness and never doing anything to cure or prevent the infection that causes the symptoms.

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